NEWBURY – The Conservation Commission wants to visit two proposed sites for larger-sized solar arrays before it votes on whether to permit work in, or near, existing wetlands on those properties.
At two consecutive public hearings held on Tuesday, the commissioners heard from representatives of Borrego Solar, the company seeking to install more than 9,000 solar modules on 11 out of 93 acres owned by the Yesair family on Main Street and 7,600 more modules on 10 of 87 acres off Middle Road, near Route 1 owned by NA Nichols Realty Trust.
It was standing room only for most of the 2-hour and 45-minute meeting in Town Hall, with many of those in the audience there to express concerns about the proposed installation on Main Street, located in one of Byfield’s residential neighborhoods. Commissioners took up 10 other public hearings prior to the 45-minute discussion on the solar arrays.
Steve Long, a civil engineer for the solar firm, said the Main Street proposal sites the solar array on the back two parcels of four lots owned by the Yesairs. Accessed by an existing gravel driveway off Main Street the arrays will stand 11 feet at the highest point, but Long did not think they would be visible from the abutting properties in the area.
The mountings on which the 3-foot-by-5-foot panels sit will be screwed into the ground and there will be a 16 foot space separating the rows of panels. Trees in the 11 acres of wooded upland will need to be clear-cut to accommodate the installation but no arrays will be placed in the wetlands. The plan will transform the woods into a grassy habitat attractive to a wide variety of wildlife, a wetlands specialist for Borrego told the commission. An existing beaver dam will not be touched.
A similar set-up is proposed for the Middle Road site only with three distinct arrays and three access roads: near Route 1, off Middle Road, and off Highfield Road. Instead of cutting down woodland on this site, an area of “disturbed” vegetation will be converted into a grassy habitat – which could be viewed as an improvement, the wetlands specialist said.
The Main Street array should generate 2.7 megawatts of power, with the Middle Road array creating 2.5.
Per guidelines from the Conservation Commission the applicants are honoring a 25-foot no-cut zone – meaning they will not disturb the first 25-feet of Bordering Vegetated Wetland (BVW) and will place no panels within the first 50-feet of a 100-foot buffer zone around BVW that is required under the state’s Wetland’s Protection Act.
“They do have the tips of a couple of panels protruding into the 50-foot zone, but for the most part have honored our request,” Conservation Agent Doug Packer said.
Commissioners identified a need for more information about erosion control – particularly in light of the plan to cut down such a large swath of trees. They also wanted to learn more about the proposed access roads and existing contours, and to schedule a time to conduct a site visit.
Under the town bylaws, the Lowell-based solar company will also need to obtain a special permit from the Board of Selectmen before the project can go forward. A spokesperson from the selectmen’s office confirmed on Wednesday that a public hearing for the special permit request is set for Aug. 26. Selectmen will review the application at their July 22 meeting.
After hearing Borrego’s presentation and reviewing the proposal at length with commissioners, Packer opened the hearing up for public comment. He reminded speakers to keep their comments relevant to the impact on wetlands, which is the only issue under consideration by Conservation Commission.
Other areas of concern should be brought to the selectmen’s special permit hearing, he said.
Several residents of Main Street and Courtney Drive expressed doubts about Long’s claim that the arrays would not be visible from their properties. They also thought it may be visible from Route 95. Questions were raised about the potential for glare coming off the panels and about the impact of noise pollution from the highway on the neighborhood if so many trees are cut down.
After fielding numerous comments from the audience, the Borrego representatives proposed holding an informational forum for the public as the process goes forward.
Commissioners continued the public hearing until Aug. 19.